Wednesday 21 September 2011

Troy Davis - Too Much Doubt - Cherie Welch

Prosecutor says he has no doubt about Troy Davis' guilt

For the Georgia prosecutor who put Troy Davis on trial in 1991 for killing a cop and won a conviction, there were two cases being fought.
"There is the legal case, the case in court, and the public relations case," Spencer Lawton, the former Chatham County prosecutor, said. "We have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court. We have consistently lost the case as it has been presented in the public realm, on TV and elsewhere."
Lawton spoke to CNN about the Davis case, his first interview on the case since Davis' initial trial, after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for the death-row inmate on Tuesday.
Davis was convicted of the 1989 killing of Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a state prison in Jackson, Georgia.
After he was sentenced to death, Davis' lawyers filed a federal court appeal insisting there was "no physical evidence linking" Davis to MacPhail’s murder. They called the testimony of a ballistics expert that shell casings from another shooting by Davis matched casings found at the murder scene an "unremarkable conclusion" since the murder weapon was not found.
"We believe that we've established substantial doubt in this case," Stephen Marsh, Davis' attorney, said at the time. "And given the level of doubt that exists in this case, we believe that an execution is simply not appropriate."
Thousands of influential dignitaries, including the pope, South Africa's Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, as well as more than 600,000 people have signed a petition seeking to stop Davis' execution.
Lawton says he believes the outrage over the sentence resulted from a public relations campaign by Davis' supporters, while prosecutors remained silent outside the courtroom.
"It's just been my policy, that I not comment on a pending case - and this case has been pending for two decades," he said. "For two decades, I've maintained my silence. That meant I could never respond.
"So we have been at an extreme disadvantage in the public relations campaign for that reason, because we felt that we were ethically bound to maintain our silence and express our opinions and judgments on the facts in court, which is where we have. And every place we have, we have won."
Now that he can speak, since he considers the case officially closed with the parole board's ruling, he wants to clear the air about a few things.
He told CNN he has no doubt about Davis' guilt. He said he believes supporters have been misinformed about the facts of the case.
He said he believed that documents from early on in the trial were being "exploited" when supporters tried to cast doubt on physical evidence or said there was none.
Davis was convicted of the first, non-fatal, shooting in Savannah's Cloverdale neighborhood that night.  Lawton said there was confusion over evidence in the murder case because the shell casings from both shootings wound up in the same evidence bag.
"That confusion was subsequently resolved; it was resolved adequately at trial," he said. "Our problem, from the state's point of view, is the documents, which initially reflect the initial confusion, are still out there and are being exploited to that end."
Davis' supporters also have attacked the witness testimony in the murder trial as shoddy and pointed out that several witnesses, including some who had claimed that Davis told them he killed the officer, later recanted their testimony, in some case blaming pressure from police.
But Lawton said recanted statements don't deserve the validity they have been given in media accounts.  He said a judge ruled they were at the very least "suspect" because they were not given under oath and prosecutors never got the opportunity to cross-examine the recanting witnesses in court.
He also said the question of duress cuts both ways.
"I think that what you would find is there was as much duress applied to get the affidavits as the affidavits are said to contain allegations of duress on the part of police," he said.
And  Lawton question why it took Davis' lawyers 15 or 20 years to get these witnesses to recant and why they then waited until eight days before Davis' first scheduled execution to make these explosive statements public.
Lawton told CNN he believes "that the affidavits of recantation were of more value to the attorneys as a device for delay than they were valuable as a device for substantive argument."
Lawton said the lengthy nature of the case has helped rampant speculation override the facts.
"It has been a game of delay throughout. The longer the delay, the more time they have to create not doubt, not honest doubt, not real doubt, but the appearance of doubt," he said. "And there are people who have not troubled themselves to acquaint themselves with the record, who don't know the facts, who do oppose the death penalty and who have been willing on the strength of that emotion alone to assume the truth of the allegations of the weakness of evidence in the case."
Lawton said some people who are fully aware of the facts believe the death penalty doesn't fit the crime, and he understands how they've reached that conclusion.
Lawton questioned Pope Benedict XVI's interpretation of the intricacies of Georgia law.
"His holiness has expressed his objection to the death penalty in the case, although it's noteworthy he didn't constrain himself to the issue of morality of the death penalty - he went on to comment on the sufficiency of evidence in the case," Lawton said regarding the pope's recent comments. "This is not something I had previously thought the Holy See had expertise in, that is to say Georgia's evidentiary rules."
He also challenged the views of former FBI director and federal district judge William S. Sessions, and Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor and Georgia congressman, who have said there is no credible physical evidence in the case.
"Their credibility is hanging on a falsehood," Lawton said. "They would know differently if they looked at the record."
As for President Carter's position that Davis should get life without parolebecause he was unfairly convicted based on the evidence, Lawton said:
"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."
Lawton said he doesn't feel Tuesday's ruling resulted in a "happy day for anyone."
"I have no brief for the death penalty. If it were to evaporate tomorrow, it would suit me fine," he said. "On the other hand, it is a part of, a component of, Georgia's law and that's what I was sworn to uphold."
Lawton said he's against mob justice of any kind.
"Would it be different if all these people were agitating to have someone executed? The criminal justice system should cow in the face of that kind of mob action? No, we would all say no," he said. "That's not the way the system is supposed to operate."

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Teen Court in Baltimore, Maryland

Death Row Bloggers Get Help From Victims

Dina Milito posts the writings of a Florida death row on the blog, "The Death Row Poet." She is pictured with Thomas Whitaker, a Texas inmate on death row, whose writings appear on the blog, "Minutes Before Six." (Dina Milito)

Nearly two decades ago, Dina Milito was the victim of a violent crime that forced her to change her name and her hometown. Today, she helps an inmate on death row maintain an online blog.

Milito is not alone. Convicted killers are getting help in publishing their death row prose from a surprising range of people including PhD students to the famlies of their victims.

Inmates aren't allowed access to the Internet for fear that they could use it to communicate with criminal associates to perpetrate additional crimes or exact revenge on people. Without the help of a sympathetic person on the outside, their writings and their thoughts would be locked up with them.

Dina Milito, a mom of two, would seem to be an odd person to be sympathetic to a violent criminal.

"When I was 19 living in a different city with a different name, I was attacked walking home one night," she said. "During my attack, I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to be killed and so I felt really lucky that I made it through. I felt lucky and relieved."

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She said that she began reading books about the lives of inmates and it changed the way she looked at them. About 18 months ago, Milito began exchanging letters with Ronald Clark, a convicted murderer who has been on death row in a Florida prison for 21 years. She was connected to him through the Death Row Support Project, a group that links people to death row inmates seeking correspondence.

"In the beginning, it was just my goal to keep him company, to give him some mail...just to write about my life, my family life," she said. "He considered himself a writer, a poet and felt that he had something to say and we kind of came up with the project."

The project is a blog called The Death Row Poet and the two consider the blog a vessel for his work.

Clark, 43, writes eloquently about everything from what's in his cell to reflective writings about his crimes. One post entitled "My Thoughts on the Death of Ronald Willis" is about the man he is convicted of shooting seven to eight times and leaving in a ditch in 1990. His accomplice, John Hatch, reached a plea deal with investigators in return for testimony against Clark. Hatch was released from prison in 2001.

"It was a cold, calculated, unnecessary and senseless murder that robbed a daughter of her father. I didn't know the man nor his family," Clark wrote on April 4. "I was a fallible young man at his worst."

Inmates are not allowed internet access or access to cell phones so Clark mails his writings to Milito who posts them. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections said that they are aware of "The Death Row Poet" blog and said that there is no plan to try and remove the site because Clark is not maintaining it himself.

"It's against our rules for them to have an internet site, but they usually say it's not me that's doing it, it's my sister, my aunt, my friends," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff of the Florida Department of Corrections.

If the blog were victimizing someone, then the department would step in, Rackleff said.

Rackleff said that the exasperated families of victims sometimes call pleading for a blog with an inmate's writings to be removed.

"People should realize that sometimes the victims of these inmates get very upset when they find these online," Rackleff said. "They're just outraged and we just have to explain that we have a limited jurisdiction over that."

Milito said that she understands the feelings of some victims' families.

"It was never my intent or Ronnie's intent to bring them any distress at all. Having been a victim of a crime myself, I have great sympathy for them," she said.

"Ronnie" as Milito calls him isn't seeking freedom, but life instead of the death penalty.

"You can't judge me, for I condemn myself...I'm compulsive, self-destructive and a walking talking disaster. I question every decision I make just because I am a thought away from another bad decision," Clark wrote on July 23.

Milito is staunchly opposed to the death penalty.

"I think people hear about the death penalty and people don't know what living out a death sentence means and he's trying to give them a glimpse of that," she said.

Along with a peek into life behind bars, advocates argue that the writings help rehabilitate inmates.

Between The Bars, a blog maintained by PhD students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posts the writings and drawings of 300 inmates from across the nation.

Co-founder Charlie DeTar said that there are another 300 inmates on a waiting list to be contributors to the blog.

"You see the full range of things you might expect on a blogging platform for people outside of prison. There's a tremendous amount of creativity...fine drawings of ink on cloth...people who have done tremendous comics...detailed perceptive analyses on gang life in prison," DeTar said.

The comments section of the posts is perhaps the most important part of generating dialogue between people in and out of prison. Sometimes those communications can be uncomfortable.

A post by an ailing Massachusetts inmate named Francis Soffen asking for compassionate released prompted angry comments from the nephew of one of his victims. Soffen was convicted of killing two accomplices in bank robberies, shooting one man six times in the face, to prevent them from testifying against him.

In his blog asking for release, Soffen described his daily pain.

"Some days it feels like knife punctures when I move, but the strongest pain reliever I can get is Motrin... I suffer for most of my waking hours...The time has come for a compassionate release here in Massachusetts. Why are the taxpayers being burdened with my expensive care?"

The mention of freedom for a man twice convicted of murder, prompted the nephew of one of his victims to write, "The compassion of the people was very clear when you were convicted of your crimes. You got a plea-bargain and were not sentenced to death. That was compassion," said the nephew who identified himself as Sonny.

Kent Whitaker, the only surviving victim of a murder plot by his son, helped launch his son's blog, "Minutes Before Six,". The blog garners tens of thousands of page loads each month and is read around the world. It also posts the writings of other inmates as well.

"I guess I can understand a little bit of the attitude of those who have been hurt from violent crimes. They're not wanting to hear anything on the other side. I think that's kind of human nature," Whitaker said.

"The truth is these guys live in conditions that are amazingly horrible and if the prison system was more honest, more open and less cruel and if there was some sort of watchdog, that could actually make some difference than these blogs, I don't think they would be there at all. But there is no outlet. Most people don't want to know what goes on back there," Whitaker said.

Kent Whitaker's 31-year-old son, Thomas Whitaker, is on death row in a Texas prison. In December 2003, Thomas Whitaker conspired with two others to kill his mother, father and brother to receive a $1.5 million inheritance. Two accomplices shot everyone in the family, including Thomas, when they returned home from dinner. Only Kent and Thomas Whitaker survived.

Kent Whitaker, now 63, is a minister who focuses on reconciliation and healing. He has forgiven his son and says their relationship is better than before the shooting. He said that the blog has helped his son grow and heal.

"I see examples of how much more open he is than he was before and examples of how he's caring for other people," Kent Whitaker said. "When you're able to help people, I think that's very healing for someone that's done something that they're ashamed of."

Kent Whitaker originally hatched the idea for his son's blog and even bought the domain name.

"I actually typed out some of the first entries. It was very uncomfortable because sometimes the content was more than I could bear," he said.

Eventually it became too painful and now a woman in Australia, Tracey Evans, maintains the blog. Evans, a 46-year-old single mom who is opposed to the death penalty, began reading Thomas Whitaker's writings and started writing to him. She considers him a close friend and has visited him twice.

"Thomas deserves to be in prison. I'm not condoning what he's done at all...It's incomprehensible to understand the enormity of what he did... But I think he still has a lot to offer,"Evans said.

The blog contains entries by other inmates including a section called "Deathwatch" where inmates who have received a date for their execution send entries leading up to their deaths. There is also a collection of essays called "Letters to a Future DR Inmate" that includes the thoughts of several inmates on death row.

After the execution of another inmate, a deflated Whitaker wrote in July, "Every once in a while an execution batters its way through and leaves you feeling emotionally sandblasted. I have been a bit distant from people of late...a friend of mine here thinks that some part of my subconscious is aware that I will never get to be the crotchety old bastard at the nursing home that I was destined to be, so I am trying to make up for it in the present day. 31 going on 87, in other words."

Friday 2 September 2011